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  • Not So Simple Life Choices
  • Gordon H. Chang (bio)

“Does my future lie in China or America?” So went the title of a 1936 national essay competition sponsored by the Ging Hawk Club in New York City’s Chinatown. The club, which had Christian church ties, gathered high school and college-age Chinese and addressed issues related to the politics and culture of contemporary China and life problems of the American-born generation.1

The provocative question posed by the social club highlighted perhaps the central concern of young Chinese Americans during what is called the “Exclusion Era,” the decades between the passage of the first Chinese Restriction Act in 1882 and the start of its dismantling in 1943. Because of social practice and national law, Chinese in America suffered de facto and de jure marginalization. If foreign born, people of Chinese ancestry were prohibited from enjoying naturalization privileges. “Aliens ineligible to citizenship” is the category to which they were relegated. The undesirability of Chinese presence in America extended to American born, who, though they carried American citizenship as confirmed in the landmark Supreme Court case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), still suffered the stigma of being racial others and marginalization.

College-educated Chinese, to whom the contest was directed, considered their life choices under these difficult conditions. The issue raised by the essay contest was of vital and immediate concern. Proud of their education and special status in a community largely composed of limited English–speaking workers and small shopkeepers, college-educated Chinese understood that their lives in America would be highly restricted, with career paths far below what they believed their educational achievement and ambition should have earned. Moreover, China, their ancestral homeland, was in dire straits, facing terrible impoverishment, political conflict, and Japanese aggression. Chinese everywhere were called to serve the most urgent task of obtaining “national salvation.”2

The distinction commonly made today in the twenty-first century between being “Chinese American” and Chinese was largely lost in America. Even among Chinese, the distinction was blurred. The Chinese Christian Student [End Page 551] in New York and the Chinese Digest, the most prominent English-language periodical devoted to the Chinese community in America and published in San Francisco, announced the contest in late 1935 and early 1936. The contest essay rules stipulated that eligibility to enter required that contestants be “American born Chinese boys or girls, between the ages of 17 and 25,” the place of birth incidental to the “blood” tie. The term overseas Chinese, which was embraced everywhere, was used. The club’s expressed hope was that the contest would help reveal thoughts “in regard to the problems arising from the conflicts of Chinese and American Cultures.” Essays were to run between one thousand and fifteen hundred words and would be judged by a group of Chinese ancestry and Anglo-American professionals. Ten dollars would go to the two top entries of the contest.3

The sponsors of the contest had no idea that it would ignite disputation that would run for months and see personal insult, invective, and insinuation of integrity to such a degree that the Digest had to shut down the public exchange of opinion, charges, and countercharges.

The contest innocently enough said that the “essays will be judged on originality of context.” Nothing more, and the “winners” would be announced in April. The contest ignited debate that revealed deeper cleavages over ethnic identity, attitudes toward the ancestral homeland and the United States, and the ways that young college-educated Chinese thought about their life purposes. In many respects, the fascinating and emotional discussion provoked by the debate shows how removed the features of mid-Depression Chinese America are from today, though central elements also appear ironically, even surprisingly, familiar.

Chinese Digest in May 1936 published the submission of the first-place winner of the Ging Hawk Club competition, Robert Dunn, self-identified as a twenty-one-year-old junior at Harvard. His thousand-word, considered answer to the contest question argued that his own future lay not in going to China, where he had never been, for his life’s work but in remaining in America. He...


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pp. 551-557
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